With its art deco architecture and individualist ideology, BioShock’s undersea city still enraptures today
More than a decade on from Irrational’s first trip beneath the waves, the city of Rapture is still one of gaming’s most unique and memorable settings. An undersea city built by people who really, really didn’t want to pay their taxes, overlooked by huge statues of its founder, and decked out in art deco style, it remains a remarkable place to visit.
Not that you get much chance for undisturbed sightseeing. Because you’re sharing the space with Rapture’s monstrous residents—and they’re not happy about it. Enter the Splicers, citizens who manipulated their own genetics so much it deformed their bodies and drove them mad. Now they scurry through the ruins of the city, still wearing the tattered remnants of the clothes they wore back in the glory days of Rapture, and sometimes even grotesque masks from the New Year’s masquerade ball, the night it all went wrong.
And they aren’t even the scariest ones. That title has to go to the hulking diving suit-clad beasts known as Big Daddies. They’re indisputably the most iconic characters in BioShock— so much so it’s a Big Daddy who appears on the front of the box, and the sequel promotes them to a starring role—and they can do serious damage if you rub them up the wrong way.
This combination of population and decoration makes Rapture one of the most distinctive places you’ll ever visit on your Xbox. It’s all introduced gradually by BioShock’s classic opening sequence. After a private flight crashes into the sea, you find yourself among the burning wreckage looking up at an isolated lighthouse in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. You step through its ornate golden door, a crackly record of 1940s jazz playing, and are greeted by a huge statue of Rapture’s founder, Andrew Ryan.
From there, it’s down twenty thousand leagues under the sea, as a bathysphere tour gives you a taste of everything BioShock has to offer, condensed into a couple of minutes. Ryan’s charismatic but troubling sloganeering. Beautiful vintage posters. A whale swimming between the towers of undersea skyscrapers, their neon lights blinking through the murk. Your first distant glimpse of a Big Daddy, and an up-close view of a murderous Splicer. Even an early hint at the game’s eventual plot twist, with the first deployment of a phrase that would prove to be very important indeed: “Would you kindly”.
The promise of BioShock, all laid out in this sequence, is almost as ambitious and unlikely as the construction of a city at the bottom of the ocean. A story-driven first-person shooter, in a unique setting, with a political critique at the center? In 2007, that was practically unprecedented. But BioShock existed in a clear lineage, one that stretched back more than a decade—to 1994’s System Shock, and the ‘immersive sim’ genre it helped birth. These games established interlocking simulated systems for the player to interact with however they chose, often discovering emergent possibilities that the designer may never have intended. Developer Irrational had been responsible for System Shock’s sequel, and this game was often described as its spiritual successor— hence the ‘Shock’ in the title. BioShock’s success helped lay the foundations for a second wave of immersive sim games, headed up by Dishonored and the revival of the Deus Ex series. The most obvious inheritance from BioShock’s immersive sim lineage comes in the form of Plasmids, superhuman abilities that let you customize your playstyle. These
vary from fireballs to tornado traps, perhaps most importantly, powers that have the effect of turning your enemies against one another.
The shooting itself isn’t particularly satisfying— BioShock isn’t a game for connoisseurs of ‘gun feel’, or headshot fiends—but these abilities offer options in combat far beyond the usual shotgun-or-pistol choices. Throw an Electro Bolt at a puddle to fry any Splicers standing in the water. Use Telekinesis to pick up a grenade and fling it back the way it came. Hack one of Rapture’s flying sentry bots to turn its turret to your side, or use the Security Bullseye Plasmid to send it after a specific foe.
There is a fairly major flaw in the design of BioShock’s combat, however—the existence of VitaChambers. These are booths scattered around Rapture which resurrect you after dying. They’re an attempt to justify respawning within the game’s fiction, and eventually turn out to be a vital plot point, but they sap the tension of fights.
Dying normally just means popping up a room or two back, with nothing lost. Your progress is maintained—any enemies you’ve shot stay dead— and this means any encounter can be brute forced through sheer persistence and repetition. It’s especially damaging to the Big Daddy battles, which should be climactic moments. The lumbering beasts soak up bullets, so rather than experiment with different methods, the best approach is to fight until you die, over and over, respawning and
“It’s undeniably cathartic to unload a shotgun into monsters spouting rhetoric like ‘altruism is the root of all wickedness’”
slowly chipping away at its enormous reserve of health. It’s a disappointing waste of one of gaming’s all-time great enemies.
Ultimately, the shooting is probably the least interesting thing about the game BioShock. What really pulls you through Rapture’s levels is its story. Not just in the sense of plotadvancing cutscenes—though these do deliver some great moments—but the story that’s sprinkled throughout.
Something else that BioShock inherited from the System Shock games was a focus on environmental storytelling—where details of the game world deliver parts of a narrative that you have to piece together yourself. Bodies placed in a way that suggest how they might have gotten there. Posters that fill out your sense of what this city was like before society collapsed. Graffiti… oh so much graffiti.
The game’s structure leads you to a string of hubs, each using environmental clues to convey the history of the space and the personality of the person who serves, essentially, as its end-of-level boss. It’s not always subtle—we are, after all, talking about messages scrawled in blood—but it delivers some of the game’s absolute highpoints.
Like, for example, Fort Frolic. Headed up by Sander Cohen, a psychopathic artist whose preferred medium is human corpses, the area is filled with eerie examples of Cohen’s work—bodies posed and sealed in plaster to create human statues. Generally considered the game’s best level, Fort Frolic was designed by Jordan Thomas, who would go on to lead the development of BioShock 2.
Supporting this visual storytelling are the audio logs: Diaries of Rapture’s residents tucked away in corners of the world. They’re definitely a contrivance—why is everyone speaking their thoughts out loud and recording them?—but they’re also a great way of squeezing in a little more story, and rewarding exploration.
The environment and audio logs are sometimes used to tell self-contained stories, and sometimes to tie into the larger plot. You’ll find your first clue to the game’s big twist hidden in an audio diary. It’s a twist that works because you’ve been slowly steeped in it over hours, through every storytelling method BioShock has at its disposal. I won’t spoil it here—and frankly, the impact of the reveal is hard to convey without experiencing it first-hand—but it makes you question everything you’ve played up to that point, in a way that had rarely been seen in a game at the time, especially in a mainstream shooter.
The other story which spans the length of BioShock is the question of how Rapture came to be, what it was like to live there, and what happened when it all came crashing down on New Year’s 1959. And this is where the game’s political message seeps in like water between the cracks in Rapture’s ceilings—and occasionally comes crashing in with all the blunt force of the ocean.
BioShock was conceived as a critique of Objectivism, an ideology developed by Russian-American writer Ayn Rand, most famously in her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Objectivism, among other things, states that humans have no duty to one another, and that everyone should be free to pursue their own self-interest, without governmental intervention.
These are the philosophical foundations on which Rapture was built. Andrew Ryan—a near anagram of Ayn Rand—practically shouts chunks of Objectivist ideology at you throughout the game, while Splicers bemoan ‘the parasite’ or scream “I’m your better!” as they sprint towards you. It’s about as subtle as a Fox News segment.
BioShock’s point is that Objectivism doesn’t work—after all, Rapture is not exactly in rude health when you arrive—but it’s questionable how much deeper the critique goes than that. Nevertheless, at the time, it was thrilling to be playing a big-budget game that was so overtly political. And today, it’s undeniably cathartic to unload a shotgun into monsters spouting rhetoric like “altruism is the root of all wickedness”.
But even if you’d prefer to just shut off that bit of your brain as you play, there’s plenty to enjoy in Rapture. The gorgeous commercials that show when you buy a new Plasmid, animated in a vintage style reminiscent of Fallout’s Vault Boy. Creepy vignettes, like the Splicer casting an enormous silhouette onto the wall as she cries over a pram—a pram which, you eventually discover, contains only a loaded revolver. Moments of majesty, as you turn a corner and are suddenly reminded that this art deco city exists at the bottom of the sea, and horror, as the lights unexpectedly go out and you hear unhinged cackling from somewhere behind you.
The game still looks pretty great, especially if you pick up the recent remastered version, and while the cracks in its design have only become more visible with age—the combat lacks finesse, and some of the environmental storytelling that felt so pioneering at the time now looks a little clumsy—few games since have offered such a brilliantly distinctive atmosphere. Rapture isn’t somewhere you’d want to live, but it’s a wonderful place to revisit.
Above There are two types of Big Daddy: The drill-wielding Bouncer and Rosie the rivet gunner.
above You’ve eventually given a camera that lets you snap enemies to learn their weaknesses.
Top There are still tattered remnants of the decorations from Rapture’s final party strewn throughout the city.
Above BioShock’s moral choices don’t really work. Kill a little girl, or don’t—it’s not the most nuanced decision.